THE BLOG

This Christmas, Think of the Thousands Spending Next Week in Detention With No Hope of Release

16/12/2015 12:05 GMT | Updated 16/12/2016 10:12 GMT

Today, MPs and Peers will gather in a Parliament committee room to enjoy a small Christmas concert with all the usual trimmings - mince pies, mulled wine and carols.

Nothing newsworthy there. The big day approaches, after all - and parliamentarians, like everyone else, are winding down for the holidays.

But this is a concert with a difference - and that difference is the singers leading the carols. The WAST Nightingales - making the trip down from Manchester to Westminster for the day - are not your average choir.

Their 16 members are all asylum seekers - WAST stands for Women Asylum Seekers Together - from Iran, Pakistan, Congo, Gambia, Zimbabwe, Trinidad and Tobago, Ghana and Nigeria. They left their countries for a variety of reasons: forced marriage, sexual violence, FGM, political oppression, persecution due to their sexual orientation and trafficking.

Two of the choir's members, after many years, have been given leave to remain in the UK. More than half are destitute, surviving on charity food parcels and sofa surfing.

Four have experienced detention in Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre in Bedfordshire. Their account of life there is a catalogue of abuse and degradation: being handcuffed to attend medical appointments, denied access to sanitary towels and basic provisions, refused treatment for medical problems for days on end. Being overseen by male guards who have direct access to their bedrooms at any time, regardless of detainees' previous experience of violence at men's hands. Being locked in detention indefinitely, with no hope or expectation of release.

This is happening here, now, on British soil, to people whose only crime is to have sought safety in our country. To pregnant women, to mothers separated from their children, to migrants with long-standing mental health issues, survivors of rape and sexual violence and physical and mental torture.

If only the WAST Nightingales' experiences were the exception. But they're not, far from it. The UK has one of the largest detention estates in Europe - and we are one of very few European countries to place no time limit on immigration detention.

In August, the Chief Inspector of Prisons delivered a harrowing report on Yarl's Wood. It found the centre failed to meet the most basic standards of safety and respect for detainees. Healthcare standards had deteriorated markedly since the last inspection, with physical and mental health needs unmet. Medical assessments were woefully inadequate.

Overall, HMIP found "a corrosive culture of disbelief". The majority of staff in contact roles were men, with male officers undertaking intimate health assessments, "barging into bedrooms unannounced", present during rub-down searches and "inappropriately used to provide constant support for women in acute crisis". The Chief Inspector called for a strict time limit on detention.

The report also revealed that, of 894 women released from immigration detention in the six months before inspection, just 443 were ultimately removed. The reality is that immigration detention is not an effective tool to facilitate removal. It's simply a waste of public funds and a futile assault on individual liberty.

The situation at Yarl's Wood is inexcusable - but it's arisen because our system itself is fundamentally inhumane. The desperation, self-harm and trauma documented are the result of unlimited incarceration of vulnerable people purely for the administrative convenience of the Home Office. Detention without limit is always an invitation to abuse - and the most vulnerable suffer the most.

It isn't just Liberty calling for an end to limitless immigration detention. There is a growing consensus across Parliament and across parties that it is time for a time limit. HMIP's condemnation followed an inquiry from the all-party parliamentary group on migration and refugees, which - in a thorough report published in March - recommended a time limit of 28 days on immigration detention. And today's concert will be co-hosted by Liberty and a group of parliamentarians from across the political spectrum, including Conservative MPs.

There is a straightforward solution - and a very short window of time to implement it. As I write, the Government's Immigration Bill is going through Parliament. It is a noxious piece of legislation that, in its current form, risks setting race relations in our country back by decades and fostering a climate of discrimination and fear not just for its target - irregular migrants - but for the rest of us too.

But it is also an opportunity to end the scourge of limitless immigration detention. One simple amendment creating a time limit would introduce a desperately-needed injection of compassion into this otherwise shameful Bill.

Despite this, the Government remains unmoved.

We know they won't listen to campaigners, to HMIP, all-party committees or their own MPs and peers. But perhaps they will listen to this small group of brave, dignified women who have made the journey to London to tell them exactly what it's like to be locked up with no hope of release?

Publishing his report in August, the Chief Inspector of Prisons called Yarl's Wood a "place of national concern". That's exactly what it is, and must remain until it finally closes. The use of limitless detention is a national shame - and it's all too easy to push into the shadows.

While we and our elected representatives enjoy turkey with all the trimmings, the Downton Abbey finale, presents and crackers and family feuds and everything else that comes when you are lucky enough to be safe and free at Christmas, thousands of people across our country will spend next week in detention with no hope of release.

We should think of them this Christmas. We should think of the fact that our Government, in its Immigration Bill, has a chance to cleanse this horrendous stain from our collective conscience. And we should demand to know in the clearest terms: what exactly will it take to make them listen?